America’s Native Bamboo – Part I – History and Ecology

Switch Cane copyright Jill Henderson showmeoz.wordpress.comby Jill Henderson – Show Me Oz

Mention the word bamboo and most people in the Western world naturally think of panda bears, China and steamy exotic jungles. In fact, the majority of the 1,450 species of bamboo in the world do originate in countries located in South and Southeastern Asia, with a few scattered species in Saharan Africa and the very farthest regions of South America. In these places, native bamboo species can grow as dense as the thickest forest you can imagine and produce giant canes as big around as small trees, while others are as diminutive and slender as a clump of our native Big Bluestem.  In fact, bamboo is actually a grass belonging to the Poaceae or True Grass family. With over 10,000 recognized species, true grasses represent the fifth largest plant family on earth. Knowing this, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to find out that the United States has three very distinct native species of bamboo, known collectively as river cane.

When the first Europeans set out to explore the New World, they encountered massive canebrakes so dense as to be nearly impenetrable. These natural obstacles had to be navigated around, sometimes for miles on end. The largest canebrakes were found along most of the larger rivers and streams, as well as the low-lying flood plains at their margins. Once a nuisance to explorers and settlers alike, river cane was quickly identified as a nutritious source of food for livestock and canebrakes as fertile farm land in the making.

No doubt these realizations came with the help of the indigenous peoples of the region, who had used river cane and canebrakes for thousands of years. To the locals, the young tender shoots – high in calcium, protein and phosphorus – were an important source of abundant and nutritious food. They also took advantage of the rich soils that river cane prefers, often clearing small areas along the edges for use in crop production. But unlike their European counterparts, native people took great care in nurturing and protecting the canebrakes because they supported a wide array of bird and animal species that were often hunted for food.

As in all early indigenous cultures, plants served many roles within the society. River cane was not only a subsistence crop, but a source of strong, straight and sturdy “wood” used to construct a dizzying array of tools, weapons, basketry, traps, cages, footwear, bedding and even lodging. Even today, the finest examples of hand-woven basketry came from the Cherokee people, who used split river cane and natural dyes to make some of the most stunning works of functional art the world has ever known.  Called talu-tsa by the Cherokee, these baskets were so tightly woven that they would prevent the contents from getting wet during a heavy rain.  Kept in The British Museum, the basket below is one of the earliest known historic examples of this fine craft.

Early 18th Century Cherokee Basket

Unfortunately, like so many of the abundant natural resources found in the New World, early settlers quickly decimated river cane through over-grazing and farming. That was the beginning of the end of the once massive canebrakes and today, native bamboo occupies less than 2% of its native habitat.

The loss of this habitat has raised concern for the future of many life forms that rely on the habitat created by canebrakes. A 2002 article written by A.J. Hendershott for the Missouri Conservationist Magazine, succinctly describes the ecology of canebrakes:

Cane thickets make great wildlife cover. Indigo buntings, cardinals, hooded warblers, evening grosbeaks, water thrushes and other songbirds use it for refuge from predators. Golden mice, southeastern shrews and other small mammals hide in cane stands, too. Swamp rabbits use canebrakes for cover and food, hence their nickname: canecutters.

At least five species of butterflies – yehl skipper, creole pearly-eye, southern pearly-eye, lace winged roadside skipper and Carolina roadside skipper – need cane for their caterpillar stage. The cane they eat helps fuel their metamorphosis into butterflies. Five newly identified species of moths are known to feed exclusively on cane.

Insects are not the only animals that depend on cane. Swainson’s warblers and Bachman’s warblers need it to survive. Swainson’s warblers migrate to southeast Missouri every spring to nest in our cane stands. They breed and raise their young in cane, and even make their nests from cane leaves. These warblers are now state endangered, partly due to the lack of canebrakes.

Bachman’s warblers were even more dependent on cane. Some biologists think that this species could only feed oncane-dwelling insects. Today, the Bachman’s warbler is considered extinct.

native switch caneNeedless to say, conservationists have long-advocated the restoration of native bamboo species in the U.S., but it isn’t just for the birds.  River cane also helps improve water quality in rivers and streams by controlling erosion and stabilizing embankments.  It also helps prevent  preventing sediment generated through deforestation, road-building and farming from choking gravelly river beds that fish and other native aquatic species need to survive.

The movement to restore native bamboo species has also brought about a new discovery. In 2007, a new species of native bamboo was identified in the Appalachian Mountains. Appropriately named Arundinaria appalachiana, Hill Cane joined River Cane (Arundinaria gigantea) and Switch Cane (Arundanaria tecta) as the only three native bamboo species in the Continental United States.

Next week, learn more about the three species of native bamboo, including ways in which native bamboo is being used in restoration projects here in Missouri and how you can add this delightful and useful plant to your landscape.

© Jill Henderson  Feel free to share with a link back to the original article.

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Jill Henderson is an artist, author, and the editor of Show Me Oz . Her books, The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, The Garden Seed Saving Guide and A Journey of Seasons can be found in the Show Me Oz Bookstore.  Jill is a contributing author for Acres USA and Llewellyn’s Herbal Almanac and her work has appeared in The Permaculture Activist and The Essential Herbal.

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25 responses to “America’s Native Bamboo – Part I – History and Ecology

  1. Timely article, Jill. I wonder if cane will work as a visual barrier in my backyard. I look forward to reading more in your next installment.

  2. Friends of mine are expert in growing bamboo in environments similar to ours in MO – they are based in TN. I will send them a link to your posts here.
    Adam and Sue Turtle
    Bamboo Institute of Tennessee
    30 Myers Rd
    Summertown, TN 38483-7323

  3. One great use for bamboo is creating habitat for native solitary bees and wasps. To learn more about how we are using bamboo and other materials to create habitat for these important beneficial insects as part of a citizen science project check us out here:

    • Hi Jason. Thank you for your input on how bamboo can generate habitat for native bee and wasp species. Perhaps you might like to write a bit on that particular subject for Show Me Oz – I think your experience in this regard would be enlightening!

  4. Thanks for the article Jill. A couple of small errors in the names (Arundinaria gigantea is river cane, A. tecta is switch cane, and A. appalachiana is hill cane). Of course like many things in the world of taxonomy, things are always being modified. Also, pictured above is a species of Phyllostachys, not Arundinaria. Your point though is right on – we need more restoration of this important ecological and cultural resource. Also of note is the extinction of the Carolina parakeet, the extinction of the passenger pigeon, and the migration of bison in the Southeast are all due in large part to the decimation of native canebrakes. We have tentative plans on starting up a river cane restoration project here in NC.

    • Thanks for your comments, David.

      In regards to the image of River Cane (Arundinaria gigantea) used at the beginning of the post, which came from Matt Lavin, Professor of Biology at Montana State University, I am inclined to accept that he has correctly identified the species shown in the picture. However, I did innadvertantly add an “n” to the end of A. gigantea, which I thank you for pointing out.

      You are also correct in pointing out the how the dissapearance of river cane sped the decimation of animal and bird species once so abundant in North America – the Carolina parakeet, in particular. While the passenger pigeon and the Carolina parakeet were mercelessly hunted without any thought as to the continuation of the species, it is believed that the destruction of canebrakes were the fatal blow to the Carolina parakeet, which relied heavily on canebrakes for nesting, forage and shelter.

      To your latter question on the nutritive qualities of bamboo shoots: I’m afraid I don’t currently have any detailed information on fresh shoots of native bamboo, other than they are high in crude proteins, phosphorus and calcium. I believe nutritive values would fluctuate depending on the species and on what types of soils they grew in. I had hoped to find more detailed information on that for the second part of the series, in which I will discuss growing and using native bamboos in the home landscape…but stay tuned – you never know what I might dig up!

      Thanks again for your thoughtful comments.

  5. Jill, one more question. I’ve been looking for more info on the nutritional analysis of bamboo shoots but have only been able to find this (link below) for canned shoots. Do you have any other sources? Thanks!

  6. Jill, I have to agree with David, the picture is of a species of Phyllostachys, not Arundinaria gigantea. The branches on Rivercane are very different and there are a lot more of them that emerge from the node.

    • Thanks, Berbalang. I appreciate you confirming the mis-identification. I’m definitely not an expert on bamboo, so I rely on people like you and David to help me get it right! I’ll try to find an image that correctly represents A. gigantea. Thanks again! (and sorry, David, for not trusting your expert eye!)

      • Just want to thank everyone who pointed out that the original header photo was misidentified as native River Cane when in fact it was Phyllostachys – a non-native species. The new image is definitely Arundinaria (A. tecta to be precise. Hope I’m right on that!). Thanks again!

  7. Great article! Didn’t even realize any cane was native!

    • Thanks, Phil! Pretty cool, huh?! You guys will have to come over during the day some time and check out our patch! We have Switch Cane, which is a shorter version than River Cane. It’s very pretty.

  8. Hello Jill, I am very excited to learn all about Native Bamboo in No. Ga. We have recently purchased 16 acres of wooded Piedmont land near Lake Lanier. I immediately noticed some bamboo-like grasses near the spring fed creek. It is only 2 ft high however, and unimpressive in density. Is it likely to be Arundinaria appalachiana? Any ideas about how to encourage it to become a canebrake?

    • Hi Becky! It would be difficult to correctly identify your cane without seeing it in person, but if it is native, I’d have to say that it’s probably not A. appalachiana, which prefers drier ground. It’s more likely to be Switch Cane (A. tecta) or River Cane (A. gigantea). But keep in mind that aside from the three species of native bamboo there are multitudes of non-native species that have escaped cultivation, as well as numerous other plants that resemble bamboo, but aren’t. I would suggest finding a native plant group (maybe on FB?) where you can submit images to help aid with identification or connect with your local conservation department who can help you ID your clump. If it is native bamboo, it might just take some time for it to reach mature size.

    • Thanks. The picture is too small for me to zoom in on it, but the leaves are definitely those of bamboo. I’m leaning towards Switch Cane, but again, it’s difficult to tell without seeing the leaf nodes and other small details.

  9. Many years ago I was given a root ball of river cane. I have sandy soil and arid climate so I wasn’t so sure it could survive here. Well it did and has exhibited good characteristics for a non native plant since. It has stayed in one place and only spread by roots so far. I’ve experimented with it by using it’s roots for reinforcing small earthen dams in small runoff drainages with good results. It has survived drought conditions as well as the desert winter temperatures. All in all a very utilitarian plant and the dead canes are also useful for many projects around the garden. Imagine my surprise when I saw it in the local paper listed as a class A noxious weed. This is primarily because of “potential” for clumps to breakaway during floods and colonize downstream. I think that this is an overreaction after the Tamarisk Eradication project of the past couple of decades.

    • Thanks for sharing your experience with native bamboo, Bob. We have found the switch cane to be hardy and very well-mannered, staying in a tight clump exactly where it was planted and only very slowly spreading outwards. This spread could be easily contained by mowing around the clump, but because ours is in a drainage doing what it was meant to do, which is to slow down runoff and prevent erosion, we haven’t even tried to contain it. It does die back in a hard winter, but, like you, we use the dead canes for all kinds of garden projects. Thanks again for sharing!

  10. After some further research, I may be confusing it with giant reed grass,
    However the structure of my plant resembles bamboo, not reeds and stems often show life for many years. I will be looking forward to your follow up articles.

  11. Pingback: America’s Native Bamboo – Part II – Identification and Culture | Show Me Oz

  12. Dear Jill,
    I have read that before European contact with Native American Indians who lived in area of “Louisiana” along the Mississippi River, there was wild cane growing in the wet areas. Could you explain the difference between River Cane and Sugar cane? Thanks, Jennifer

    • Hi, Jennifer. Good question. Sugar cane is a true perennial grass in the Poaceae family and originated in South Asia. The Spaniards first brought sugar cane from India to the Caribbean and South America in the early 1800’s, so it was not present in North American during the early periods of colonization. River cane also belongs to the grass family, but it is botanically a true bamboo and does not share the same botanical genus with sugar cane. I can’t say with 100% certainty, but I’d bet that river cane was predominant in the wetlands of most Southern states prior to colonization. Hope that helps! Jill

  13. Pingback: Bamboozled by Bamboo - Nature Guys

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